The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- When English prose becomes an area between control and dispossession

All his life, Nirad C. Chaudhuri strove to both express his Bengaliness and to escape it; if his first act of distancing was to write his autobiography in the English language, his second act of distancing himself from his intellectual antecedents was his lapidary dedication itself, placed at the beginning of the book, which made him infamous in his own land: “TO THE MEMORY OF THE/ BRITISH EMPIRE IN INDIA/ WHICH CONFERRED SUBJECTHOOD ON US/ BUT WITHHELD CITIZENSHIP;/ TO WHICH YET/ EVERY ONE OF US THREW OUT THE CHALLENGE:/ ‘CIVIS BRITANNICUS SUM’/ BECAUSE/ ALL THAT WAS GOOD AND LIVING/ WITHIN US/ WAS MADE, SHAPED AND QUICKENED/ BY THE SAME BRITISH RULE.”

This twelve-line signpost of Indian literary history, announcing its striking act of disowning while proclaiming its embarrassing allegiance, is absent, however, from the 1999 Picador reissue of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian; handling the book, I couldn’t understand why it felt incomplete, why I felt something was missing. When I realized, at last, what it was, I phoned the publisher, Peter Straus; he confessed to being as surprised as I was, and promised he’d investigate. Later, he told me the dedication had been lost somewhere in the course of the book's publishing history, and that Picador had inherited the text the way it had appeared from its former publishers. Straus reassured me, of course, that the dedication would be restored. Why the dedication disappeared at all is mysterious; certainly, one has no reason to believe that Chaudhuri disowned, at some point, his own act, and proclamation, of disowning. Was it, then, censored, or excised, by a well-meaning Western publisher'

The dedication itself is a curious artifact, curiously arranged. The eighth line consists of one word only — “Because”; it serves as a sort of fulcrum around which the dedication turns; and as the “turn” in Dutt’s sonnet veers it towards the “kulalakshmi”, the goddess, and, finally, the mother-tongue, the “because” here parodies the form and logic of the sonnet, and takes us in the opposite direction, “All that was good and living/ Within us/ Was made, shaped and quickened/ By the same British rule”. The word “us” occurs three times in the dedication; it’s used with deliberate, and provocative, irony. Who is the “us”, after all, that the author of the dedication claims kinship with' For the dedication, in fact, represents a permanent break with that “us”, a relinquishing, by Chaudhuri, of his participation in the collectivities of post-Independence India. Seldom, I think, has the triumphalist collective pronoun been used in contemporary India with such lonely and perverse intent.

In choosing English, Chaudhuri was, of course, offering himself to a worldwide audience, if by “world” we mean the Anglophone West. The “unknown” in the title, thus, is also partly ironical, a slap in the face of a society he felt had largely ignored him. When Dutt published his epic, the Bengali readership was relatively amorphous, itself a kind of transitional text. Dutt could write to his friend: “Many Hindu ladies, I understand, are reading the book and crying over it.”

He could also relate to the same friend, Raj Narain, in another letter, an account of an evolving readership charged with subterfuge and wonder; it is a moment of theatre, the sort of theatre that permeates Dutt’s life, the poet himself acting out his two selves, the self that disowns and the self that recovers, posing first as Anglophone philistine, then proudly declaiming his own poem in Bengali: “Some days ago I had occasion to go to the Chinabazar. I saw a man seated in a shop and deeply poring over Meghanad. I stepped in and asked him what he was reading. He said in very good English; — ‘I am reading a new poem, Sir!’ ‘A poem!’ I said. ‘I thought there was no poetry in your language’. He replied — ‘Why, Sir, here is poetry that would make my nation proud.’ I said, ‘Well, read and let me know.’ My literary shopkeeper looked hard at me and said, ‘Sir, I am afraid you wouldn’t understand this author.’ I replied, ‘Let me try my chance.’ He read out of Book 11 that part wherein Kam returns to Rati... How beautifully the young fellow read... I took the poem from him and read out a few passages to the infinite astonishment of my new friend. How eagerly he asked where I live' I gave him an evasive reply, for I hate to be bothered with visitors.”

The question of the “audience”, however, is a vexed one today for Indian writers in English, complicated by ideas of post-coloniality, appropriation and authenticity: on a more banal level, it has become something of a nuisance. “Which audience do you write for'” is a question asked indefatigably of Indian English writers published in the West, its underlying presumption being that the only morally defensible answer is, “For an Indian audience.” Such choices are hardly ever simply made or have a simple history; Chaudhuri’s autobiography, written, by strategic and deliberate self-admission, for a Western readership, gives to the issue the complexity it deserves.

If English, for Chaudhuri, is the language by which he disowns Bengaliness, it’s also his sole means for expressing it; it’s probably these contrary and subconscious usages that give his formal language its unexpected tactility; every sentence in the book — in the poetry of its descriptions of the East Bengali landscape, and its portrayal of Calcutta — is imbued with the Bengaliness it also implicitly rejects.

For Chaudhuri, recovery begins, indeed, in the midst of acting as interpreter to a non-Bengali, non-Indian audience. For instance, in his small prefatory note, Chaudhuri refers to Kishorganj as a “little country town”; a page later, in the first sentence of the first chapter, he is already dismantling the canonical English and literary resonances of the phrase in order to convey a lived, but unacknowledged, reality. His description occurs, as we see, between two definitions, one disowned, the other recovered: “Kishorganj, my birthplace, I have called a country town, but this description, I am afraid, will call up wholly wrong associations. The place had nothing of the English country town about it, if I am to judge by the illustrations I have seen and the descriptions I have read...” What, then, is the Kishor- ganj he posits against the English phrase' It is something in-between, a colonial construct, like “Bengaliness” itself: “one among a score of collections of tin-and-mat huts or sheds, comprising courts, offices, schools, shops and residential dwellings, which British administration had raised up in the green and brown spaces of East Bengal.”

To embark upon the Autobiography in English was a solitary project. It was like being in an echo chamber, your ear peeled for your own voice. Dutt had had the “literary shopkeeper” to read his poem to; Chaudhuri had himself. In an essay called “My Hundredth Year”, Chaudhuri recalls how, when he began to write his book, the act of composing involved a play of echoes (audible as well as literary ones) and a talking to oneself: “I read what I had written aloud and then also read a passage from some great work of English prose in the same way. If the two sounds agreed I passed my writing.”

The reason for this, as Chaudhuri puts it, was “an acute anxiety”, a sense of dispossession, for “I did not learn English from Englishmen, nor hear it as spoken by native speakers of the language till late in life.” Chaudhuri, like many of his generation and his background — I think, here, of my wife’s paternal grandfather and my own father, about twenty years younger than Chaudhuri, and, like him, a graduate of Scottish Church College — learnt English as a second language. English prose style, in the hands of writers like Chaudhuri and Naipaul, has been an instrument of ambivalence; besides, neither of these two writers, among the most individual stylists of English prose from the “colonies”, came from the upper reaches of their respective societies.

On the other hand, Rushdie’s “khichdi” idiolect, with its “Bombay mix” of Hindi, English, and Indian English, is a hegemonic language; the increased use of a similar English in films and advertisements (“Britannia khao/ World Cup jao”) signals the coming of age and the spending power of an upper-middle class generation in post-Independence, post-liberalization India. This is not to either praise or condemn it, but to point out that, in order to appreciate its comedy and excitement, it’s important to remember that this “khichdi” language is very far from an African creole or pidgin, or being a language of the dispossessed.

On the other hand, English prose style, in Chaudhuri’s hands, becomes the measure of one who doesn’t quite belong. It’s partly a language of suggestion, which is why sound and rhythm are such significant components of it. Chaudhuri, notoriously, believed in opinions and positions; but he believed (this is worth remembering) equally in the prosody of the English sentence: “There is no such thing as one standard rhythm of English prose. English prose rhythms are bewilderingly diverse...” There’s a greater tension between sense and sound, between the different registers, audible and half-heard, of what Chaudhuri says, than either his readers or even he has given himself credit for. The auditoriness of English prose style becomes, for this astonishing and intractable writer, a mapping of an area between control and dispossession, between the authority of words and the suggestion of sound.

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